The Washington Post
Alonso falls short of a three-peat but leaves his mark
los angeles — In the first two years after Pete Alonso debuted for the New York Mets in 2019, he did not allow anyone else to win a Home Run Derby. Everyone from Shohei Ohtani to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto participated. He vanquished them all.
But Monday night at Dodger Stadium, the fever broke: Alonso fell to Seattle Mariners rookie sensation Julio Rodríguez in the semifinals. When time ran out, when his run of derby wins was over, Alonso headed straight to Rodríguez, removed his cap and tipped it to him. He didn’t look crushed. After all, he almost certainly will be back.
Alonso has made the derby his own in a way few stars ever have, in a way few stars ever have been willing to do, year after year. Some worry about their swings, their health, their energy for the second half. Some do it once for the experience, then decide not to try it again next time.
Those are nearly unfathomable notions for Alonso, whose biggest concern as of a week ago would be whether he would still be able to participate if he were not named an all-star despite having driven in more runs than any Mets player ever has by this time of year. This is his event. This is his thing, and everyone in baseball knows it.
“People are just born to do certain things, and he’s born for that,” Soto said. “He is a guy who loves it and has a lot of power. Not many guys love it more than he does.”
Few guys love baseball more than Alonso, who can be so earnest on the field, in interviews or in a Mets love letter in the Players’ Tribune that discerning observers
might wonder if he is playing a role.
When a driver ran a red light and crashed into Alonso’s truck, flipping it, during spring training, he debated whether to tell the media, whether to address his teammates. He wasn’t hurt — not physically. But he was grateful. Ultimately, he decided to tell reporters and to hold a meeting with his teammates to explain what happened — but mostly to tell them to live life to the fullest.
“I just love coming to the yard. I really take pride in what I do. This is my craft. This is my job. And as much as I take myself seriously, I love having fun along the way,” Alonso said in a recent interview. “Your time is limited. I want to enjoy every single day I have here.”
Persistent enthusiasm often meets skepticism in major league clubhouses. The game is too hard, too often, for anyone to enjoy every second. The schedule is too punishing, too often, for anyone in his right mind to be grateful every day.
But in everything from the detail with which he situates his old-school stirrups before each game to the notes he writes himself at his locker, from exuberant interviews to famously adding an emphatic “F” to “LGM” on social media, Alonso offers daily evidence that he is not so much trying to seem like a perfect New York baseball star but that he cannot help but be this way.
“That is him. He is a gem. He is completely transparent,” said former Mets bench coach Dave Jauss, now an adviser for the Washington Nationals. “He loves his teammates. He loves the game. He’s great for our industry.”
Jauss is a bit of an enthusiasm outlier in his own right, the rare batting practice pitcher who emerged as a cult hero after helping Alonso win in 2021, a baseball lifer who says he is “blessed” to do
just about everything, signs his texts with “peace” and asked Alonso for two pots of coffee and a case of beer as thanks for throwing to him in this year’s Home Run Derby.
Jauss joined Luis Rojas’s Mets staff as bench coach before the 2021 season, threw batting practice to Alonso on his first day at spring training, then threw to him every day for the rest of that campaign. By the end of the year, he and his family were having dinner with Alonso and his now-wife, having built a friendship that has continued even after Jauss departed when Rojas and his staff were
relieved of their duties last year.
Still, the 65-year-old admitted that in the back of his mind, he planned for a trip to Los Angeles this summer. He even prepared. Jauss spent part of this year traveling with MLB’S Home Run Derby X tour, throwing to former players in London. And as he travels around the Nationals’ minor league system, he says, he tries to throw batting practice at every stop there, too. If he can give a weary coach a rest, he says, he likes to do it.
But all-star festivities can be a pyrrhic privilege, too. They replace a few fleeting days of rest
with hurried travel and dozens of interviews for tired stars and the support staff that follows them. Jauss flew to Hickory, N.C., on his way to Los Angeles to meet up with the Nationals’ Class A affiliate, part of his rounds. Alonso’s Mets were in Chicago on Sunday. Within 18 hours or so, Alonso would be on the field defending his title — with Jauss throwing to him in a Nationals jersey, because no self-respecting Nationals employee could dress like a Met.
Because of the whirlwind, many stars choose not to make the trip. Fewer plan for it quietly all spring, crossing their fingers for the opportunity to add an exhausting, otherwise meaningless event to their already exhausting schedule. But Alonso wanted to be here all along.
But despite 24 homers, 78 RBI and an .856 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the first half, Alonso wasn’t guaranteed an all-star spot after St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was voted a starter by the fans. As of early July, he had said publicly he would participate in the derby if he was on an all-star roster, but what wasn’t clear was whether he would still participate if he wasn’t. Many players have done that over the years. None of them have used the moment to lift them into stardom quite like him.
In 2021, for example, Alonso made more money with his Home Run Derby win ($2 million) than he had made in three seasons with the Mets (approximately $1.5 million). Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Alonso dominates this event: Since his rookie season, he leads all hitters with 130 homers, 19 more than the next-closest guy.
“I’ve thrown to a lot of guys, and his approach to the derby is really good,” Jauss said. “I’ve probably thrown to guys that have more raw power — Russell Branyan, for example — but for being able to use it like that, those are the Mark McGwire’s you’ve seen, [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] in a different body type, Albert Pujols, same sort of stuff.”
Asked to detail Alonso’s derby strategy, Jauss demurred as if preserving a closely held secret. Alonso said he tries to hit hard line drives and hopes they go over the wall, though many a slugger has tried that approach without generating the consistent results on the big stage like he has.
“Some of it, I don’t know,” Jauss said. “Why could [Tony] Gwynn always get a hit to the shortstop hole? The manager and the hitting coach and the guy throwing BP still didn’t know. That’s how good guys like this are.”
Guys like this are such rarities that only one person has won the derby more than Alonso has, a player who personified enjoying the game and playing with visible passion like few before him. Griffey won three Home Run Derbies, and he spent Saturday in the dugout at the All-star Futures Game rendering prospects speechless with his presence. Alonso, who was a toddler when Griffey won his titles, said he does the derby as a gift to that younger self. Little Pete Alonso would have loved this, he said. As it turns out, 27-year-old Pete Alonso loves it, too.